Kerstin Kansteiner, owner of Berlin Bistro in Downtown Long Beach and Portfolio Coffeehouse and the Art Theatre on Retro Row, stood inside an empty Art, row upon row of chairs removed as crews reconfigured the space for what they believe will be a public more mindful about personal space and spacing. This could mean tables rather than rows of chairs or, perhaps, wider rows. The crew is playing with configurations while they have the empty space every day until the shelter-in-place orders are lifted.
In the world of coronavirus, business owners aren’t just thinking about the future of hospitality, they’re in the trenches already planning for a society that is more anxious and less sociable. In short, they are trying to figure out how to provide an experience that makes it worth going out.
“Changes are coming and we will have to adjust,” Kansteiner said. “It’s super sad, not going to lie. It seems it’s changing our lives as we know it, but it also may have positive outcomes. Hopefully, we will concentrate on our communities and cherish what we have. Less is more. Concentrate on quality over quantity.”
It is a reality that many business owners in Long Beach have to face. As Dr. Anthony Fauci asks Americans to begin learning to avoid handshakes, restaurateurs, bartenders and other social space purveyors are trying to anticipate how to best handle the aftershocks of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve been constantly thinking about this and devising plans,” said Kansteiner. “We are planning on removing every other table [at Portfolio] for now. Sadly, the community table at Berlin may just be used as a display table and not for dining in the near future.”
What exactly does “devising a plan” look like?
Berlin is working on an urban farm development giving it the ability to grow its own vegetables and distance itself from its dependence on distributors and streamline a smaller, healthier menu. Meanwhile, Portfolio will have a heavy concentration on serving through coffee apps like Cloosiv.
Kansteiner’s battle is on two fronts. While restaurateurs are practicing for the future right now, learning the benefits (and disadvantages) of third-party delivery services, the flow of creating take-out food and how to best package meals, Kansteiner also has to figure out how The Art Theatre will move ahead. She and husband/partner Jan van Dis, are already offering a streaming service, Virtual Cinema, allowing them to offer Art patrons the kind of films they’ve come to expect. But it remains an anxious mystery if those patrons will return to watch those films in a crowded venue that may have them feeling like they’re on the set of a contagion horror flick.
“I’ve said this from the start: People aren’t going to want to be cramped into restaurants anymore,” said Chef Arthur Gonzalez. “Now, places are putting up plastic shields, becoming comfortable with the idea of wearing masks. With the stage I’m at, I think I’ve gone through all the emotions: angry, confused, denial, depressed—now I’m looking forward and trying to figure out what’s next?”
Gonzalez runs Panxa restaurant in Belmont Heights and The Hideaway in Zaferia. He knows they’ll both reopen, “But I don’t know if it’s going to be at full capacity of employment like before. I just don’t know.”
Likewise, Sterling Steffen, co-owner of Trademark Brewing on Anaheim Street, says he has no idea what his brewery will look like in a post-coronavirus world.
“We’ve talked about how service will change, for sure,” he said. “That’s one thing about our taproom that we consider an advantage: we simply have the space to still have a lot of patrons with plenty of personal space. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up removing a few stools from the bar and pushing tables apart even further.”
Some may think social spaces will return in exactly the same way and they may feel comfortable going to those spaces. But, as we enter another month of shelter-in-place orders, there will be a significant portion of people whose anxiety will be so high that most restaurants, bars and entertainment spaces won’t be able to ignore it.
Recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom said much the same thing, advising people they should expect their waiters to wear gloves and masks when dine-in options reopen.
People in the hospitality business, people whose job it is to anticipate the public’s ever-changing wants, needs and desires, believe a few things are clear about the future. Spaces are likely to keep doing exactly what they’re doing now. Curbside delivery will remain active, as will menus heavily tilted toward to-go orders. There will be far more open space available for those who do decide to hang out in a coffee shop or cafe, and those seats will likely be limited.
While anxiety may be driving people to remain home even after the mandates are lifted, many businesses will still be financially dependent on their physical spaces and some worry that it won’t be enough to survive.
Asked about the prospect, Bobby Hernandez, owner of Recreational Coffee in Downtown, did some quick math: If 50% of the general population will have apprehensions about going out, those losses combined with the amount of start-up capital and infrastructural support needed to operate could be as devastating as the first week of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders.
“Most of us business owners saw the biggest hit when we had all our employees working that first week,” Hernandez said. “We had all our bills from weeks prior and no revenue coming in. That’s where my mind goes when all this ‘returns to normal.’ We’ll have all our employees scheduled and working, all the expenses from startup costs, and a huge portion of people apprehensive about even stepping outside.
“My bigger concern is that once we’re able to open up again, the government will have stopped handing out grants and loans, making financial assistance even more difficult to access. I still haven’t seen a dime from any of the assistance I’ve applied for. What will that look like when we’re not in the middle of the crisis anymore? Will we receive anything at all?”
Hernandez’s concerns are shared by many, something city officials are aware of and actively looking into.
“We are looking at all the fees, mandates, and processes we can currently have in place,” John Keisler, the city’s director of economic development, said during a livestream conversation with the Post. “We absolutely need to evaluate our existing processes so we can figure out how to support our business sector best.”
Ultimately, even in the middle of another economic nightmare, the one thing that ties each restaurateur and business owner together is the idea of community, and if there is one sector that is built to adjust to the needs of a community, it is undoubtedly the hospitality industry. Unlike other industries that depend on a tried-and-true approach, hospitality is saturated in new, constantly evolving tastes and needs.
Hotels need to remain fresh on everything from interior design to lobby offerings—just look at the Westin’s recent $23 million renovation of its lobby, addition of a new dining space and revitalization of hundreds of guest rooms.
Restaurants need to keep up with trends, whether it is maintaining a farm-to-table food system, offering expansive vegan options or keeping a menu seasonal.
And while these changes might have occurred over the course of years, while the coronavirus has changed the industry in a matter of weeks, there is no industry better suited to help society morph with what will be the new normal.
“It’s really just about meeting the needs of the community,” Hernandez said. “I’m just hoping the community feels the same way about meeting the needs of their community’s small businesses.”
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